Arrows Of Attention II: 100 Not-But Conceptual Pairings

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1. Not virtuosity, but attention.

2. Not new ideas, but remixing old ones.

3. Not novelty, but classic form.

4. Not a large gesture, but a small one that sits comfortably under the hands.

5. Not saying too much, but saying little.

6. Not adding, but subtracting.

7. Not free form, but logical.

8. Not contrived, but discovered.

9. Not clean and crisp, but weathered, Wabi-sabi.

10. Not willy-nilly, but thoughtful.

11. Not ambitious, but serious.

12. Not random, but sequential.

13. Not straight-lined, but fractal.

14. Not groovy, but flowing.

15. Not expressive, but poetic.

16. Not quantized, but measured.

17. Not influenced, but sociable.

18. Not a one-off, but part of a series.

19. Not argument, but a form of inquiry.

20. Not explicit, but manifest.

21. Not unison, but counterpoint.

22. Not copycat, but original.

23. Not historically obsessed, but in the present.

24. Not blocking out, but aware.

25. Not me-centered, but personal.

26. Not frantic, but long ball.

27. Not warmed up, but at 100 percent.

28. Not ignorant, but naive.

29. Not theory-laden, but experience-driven.

30. Not ideas, but patterns.

31. Not idiom-centric, but universal.

32. Not married to the sound, but accepting it.

33. Not today, but maybe next month.

34. Not later, but how about right now?

35. Not stylish, but genuine, earnest.

36. Not repeatable, but re-listenable.

37. Not imagining, but trying it out.

38. Not a sequence, but a route.

39. Not themes, but recurring shapes.

40. Not melodies, but harmonic traces.

41. Not chords, but timbre washes.

42. Not beats, but composite rhythms.

43. Not a lucky idea, but a I-was-just-right-here-and-noticed-it discovery.

44. Not luck, but forged opportunity.

45. Not a problem, but a set of conditions.

46. Not any sound at all, but exactly this sound.

47. Not exactly, but roughly in the ballpark.

48. Not the first take, but the second or third (once you’ve calmed down).

49. Not for any particular reason, but still goal-oriented.

50. Not in the details, but in the general concept.

51. Not in the forcefulness of the gesture, but in its accuracy.

52. Not in your assessment of the music, but in others’ use of it.

53. Not all at once, but one sound after another.

54. Not out of private need, but for public circulation.

55. Not because it’s cool, but because its indifferent to coolness.

56. Not because you can dance to it, but because it moves its own way.

57. Not for worship, but reverential.

58. Not for contemplation, but nudges you in that direction.

59. Not goal-oriented, but stretching one scale, one key.

60. Not complicated, but sophisticated.

61. Not exhaustive, but renewable.

62. Not happy or sad, but steadily expressive.

63. Not angered, but restorative.

64. Not self-conscious, but at ease.

65. Not static, but changing every micro-moment.

66. Not awkward, but flowing.

67. Not self-referencing, but outward-looking.

68. Not status-seeking, but freewheeling.

69. Not changing tempo, but steady state.

70. Not four-on-the-floor, but hypnotic.

71. Not cinematic/background/ambient, but the focal point.

72. Not soloing, but accompanying.

73. Not foreground and background, but interwoven texture.

74. Not surface texture, but structural form.

75. Not stimulation, but fascination.

76. Not notes on a page, but sounds over the speakers.

77. Not on a grid, but suggesting a pulse.

78. Not your best stuff, but it doesn’t really matter.

79. Not made of material, but having physical effects.

80. Not causing tension, but having a sense of urgency.

81. Not modeled on a real instrument, but inspired by it.

82. Not better than your last creation, just different.

83. Not reducible to words, but eluding description.

84. Not for everyone, but for some.

85. Not overly serious, but engaged.

86. Not structurally perfect, but enchanted.

87. Not the most beautiful, but naturally so.

88. Not synthetic, but from your own life.

89. Not doggedly persistent, just persistent.

90. Not unlike the others, but with unusual spins.

91. Not strictly repeating, but circling around and around.

92. Not distracting, but minding its own business.

93. Not naturally occurring, but sounding natural.

94. Not with all its part aligned, but finely calibrated.

95. Not putting on a show, but exploring connections.

96. Not ruling out novel sounds, but weary of them.

97. Not unlike what the theorist does, but in practice.

98. Not seeking a million ears, but one good listener.

99. Not great, but touching.

100. Not for me, but for you.

Curating The Week: Emmanuel Carrère, Yuval Noah Harari, And The Ed Sheeran-TLC Similarity

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An article on Emmanuel Carrère.

“Carrère has managed to renovate the idea of what nonfiction writing can be. Profoundly intimate, historically and philosophically serious but able to cast compulsive narrative spells, Carrère’s books are hybrids, marrying deep reporting to scholarly explorations of theology, philosophy, psychology, personal history and historiography.”

An interview with Yuval Noah Harari.

“I follow the question instead of trying to follow my own answer, even if it means I can’t formulate any clear theory.”

An article on the similarities between Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and TLC’s “No Scrubs” and how TLC’s songwriters now share songwriting credit on Sheeran’s song.

“What’s notable here is that regular people first noticed the melodic similarity and if not for the internet, it may well have gone uncredited or unnoticed.”

Here is one of those regular people, a musician singing the two songs over the same chords:

As you listen notice that the similarity is rhythmic as well as melodic: specifically, how the vocal phrases in both songs stretch over the barline and end beat one of the next.

Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation Between Beats And Musical Time

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B: MT, hello!

MT: Hi there, Beats. What’s on your mind?

B: I’m tired.

MT: Why?

B: Because I feel like I’ve been overused in music. I’m like, everywhere these days.

MT: It’s kinda true. Certainly you’re in every pop song. And of course the EDM, boom-boom-boom-boom thing…Craziness.

B: Exactly! It’s just getting to be too much. I mean, I can only be in so many places at once.

MT: How you do think popular music got to this point? Shall we begin by blaming disco?

B: [laughs] No, it’s more complicated than that. You forget how rhizomatic music history is.

MT: Okay, so let me take a different route: Should we blame drummers and their drums?

B: No, because they have always been playing beats. I think the problem, MT, is machines.

MT: Like drum machines and digital drum software and such?

B: Exactly! Technology set beats free, but in a crazy way.

MT: Well said, but back up for a second. What don’t you like about electronic beats as opposed to human-acoustic ones?

B: Technology-made beats are too easy, too widely available, and too much of a shortcut for creating musical action.

MT: What’s wrong with all that? Sounds to me like making music more accessible.

B: A lot is wrong with it. First of all, anyone can make a beat now—anyone can drag and drop a loop and get a beat going. Also, the music that’s built upon this is just…

MT: Go ahead, say it.

B: . . . Banal. Can I say that?

MT: You just did.

B: Right. The music is banal because not a lot happens in it. It’s like, because everyone is a producer now, everyone thinks they’re a beat expert without knowing the limitations of the beat mindset.

MT: Did you just speak in italics?

B: Yep.

MT: So what do you mean, Beats, by the “beat mindset”?

B: The beat mindset is the erroneous belief that adding a beat will solve all of your musical problems. Not only will it not do that, but just by having this mindset you’ll also paint yourself into a musical corner, so to speak.

MT: The way disco did with its boom-boom-boom-boom?

B: The way disco did, exactly.

MT: But disco did solve a problem which was how to tightly synchronize a lot of people on a dance floor.

B: Sure, but listen to what it did to music and look what it spawned!

MT: Right, though some of what it spawned was and is very cool-sounding. But on the whole I agree with what you’re saying: disco did seem to regiment music in a spectacular fashion. Then again, the serialists and minimalists were guilty of that too in their own ways. And yes, we have seen a lot of trickle-down from disco. Are you saying though, that disco spawned the rise of the machines?

B: Well, it showed our capacity to be regimented by musical machines or a machine aesthetic.

MT: But come on, all those electronic dance music styles that exploded in the wake of disco’s boom boom boom boom are surely a good thing?

B: Umm. I can’t say. All I know is that technology set beats free and now we’re hearing the results of that and as I said, I’m tired. But enough about me. What’s new with you?

MT: Not much. In a way, I’ve been way under the radar because of all the attention you’ve been getting over the past few decades.

B: That must be nice.

MT: It is. I get to pick my musical projects and I can work myself into music in a much less boom boom boom boom way.

B: You don’t have to keep saying boom-boom-boom-boom. I know what you’re talking about.

MT: Sorry. Anyway, my point is that you feel my presence more than you hear me. I’ve actually been hanging out in ambient/contemporary classical music a lot lately. You know, the weird stuff that gets used in TV ads.

B: Sounds like a relaxing way to make a living.

MT: What’s cool about it is that musicians working in these styles aren’t really allowed to use beats! Imagine that!

B: They’re not allowed?! That sounds dull.

MT: It’s dull, but if they used beats it would ruin the contemplative and serious mood. So they’ve had to figure out other ways to make me come alive.

B: Such as?

MT: Such as slowly evolving sounds, counterpoint, or sometimes arhythmic stuff–which, if you ask me, should be banned. That kind of thing. For the most part it’s interesting because I get to affect listeners without hammering them over the head, as it were—you know, with the boom-boom

B: Stop!

MT: It’s just so fun though. So-much-fun.

B: But seriously, as you were talking it occurred to me how polarized music has become. On the one side we have me, Beats, being stretched over all these popular musics. And on the other wide we have you, Musical Time, working in all these subtle ways, mostly in non-popular styles.

MT: Is this polarization a problem?

B: I just don’t know why it has to be an either-or situation.

MT: Beats, you and I are just reflections of what listeners think they want. We can be as subtle or as obvious as they make us. We’re rhythmic marionettes, our strings pulled by our humans…

B: …or by our machines. What musical lives we have!

MT: Yes, indeed.

•º•º

Curating The Week: The Grit-Boredom-Creativity Matrix, Irv Teibel’s Soundscapes

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An interview on the subject of grit and creativity.

“Maybe we shouldn’t use the word ‘discover.’ Your interests and your passion develop over time. I want to disabuse people of this mythology of ‘it happens to you and if you’re lucky, you find it, and then that’s all you have to do.’ That’s not true. It happens gradually, and there’s a lot you have to do, like keep exposing yourself to stuff and find mentors and so forth. It’s a process of development, not a one-time discovery.”

An article about boredom and creativity.

“Bored subjects came up with more ideas than a nonbored control group, and their ideas were often more creative. In a second study, subjects who took an ‘associative thought’ word test came up with more answers when they’d been forced to watch a dull screensaver.”

An article about Irv Teibel, conjurer of nature soundscapes.

“Now, Teibel’s concept—the soothing sounds of nature, or at least a synthesized facsimile of it—is quaint, the wallpaper of therapy waiting rooms and spa foyers. At the time, it was entirely new. Here was something you could hear but weren’t necessarily supposed to listen to. It wasn’t a sound effect, but it wasn’t music, either. And while it professed to contain the ocean, it had none of the purity or taxonomic specificity you’d expect from a field recording (never mind Teibel’s contention that the ocean could use a little work). Here was nature not as it is, but as we hope it’ll be, the lullaby of waves without the sand in our trunks.”

More Than Subliminal: On Music In TV Commercials

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I really loathe TV commercials. Whenever possible, I’ll watch recorded television (sports or shows about sports, cooking shows or shows about cooks, or are you ready to see your new house?! home improvement shows) and zoom through the ads on at least triple speed, preferably quadruple speed. At this point my wife turns to me, You really hate commercials, don’t you? Yes, I say, but not because someone is trying to sell me something (“These days everybody is talking about reverse mortgages: here are the facts, not the hype…”) but because of how music is mobilized in the ads. Commercials force music into a position of involuntary labor. Music is up for the job though: if you pay attention to how it’s used you might start hearing it as the most subliminally, emotionally manipulative of the arts. Actually, it’s more than subliminal because the manipulation is right there in music’s affecting presence—embodied in the chords and melodies, in the timbres and rhythms, in the tempo and in the overall aura of the music’s particular design. The ads are trying to sell you things and the advertisers are using music as the ultimate selling tool because music, after all, is inherently about swaying and persuading us.

In his article “Technology and Magic” (Anthropology Today, vol 4, no. 2 [April 1988], 6-9) the anthropologist Alfred Gell (one of my favorite academic technicians who has also written about the anthropology of time) describes the arts as technologies of enchantment that we employ “in order to secure the acquiescence of other people in their intentions or projects” (7). In visual art, music, dance, rhetoric, and even gift-giving, Gell sees technical strategies used to “exploit innate or derived psychological biases so as to enchant the other person and cause him/her to perceive social reality in a way favorable to the social interests of the enchanter” (ibid.). From Gell’s perspective, it’s this enchanting power that advertisers make use of when they use say, a rock song in a truck ad, or ambient music in a luxury SUV ad. There’s layers of subtleties in play too. Sometimes we recognize the music—whether it’s an arrangement of an oldie by The Who or a new electronic soundscape meant to evoke an epic Hollywood film soundtrack—and this recognition in turn triggers cascades of associations within us. The psychology of music perception is complex, isn’t it?

Anyway, the “psychological bias” that TV ads seek to exploit through their uses of music is our capacity for empathy and our tendency to want to understand the emotional sense of whatever we see playing out in front of us on the screen. We can’t help but want to perceive reality in the way the advertisers want us to because their strategic use of music naturalizes their vision of reality–it makes it sensible. Once you pay attention to how music works–in other words, how it labors–in TV ads, it’s difficult to return to that more innocent time in your life when you never noticed the music at all. The next time you’re watching TV, hear its soundtrack for what it is: an enchanting, yet manipulative technology for pushing you towards feeling one way or another (or in multiple directions at once). Music in advertising reminds us of how all music makes aimed and calibrated claims on our attention.

Clearly I watch my share of TV: you can read more of my thoughts about music in commercials for Apple (here and here and here and here), Lego, Rolex, and Lacoste.

Owning The Phenomenal World: Jeong Kwan On Creativity

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“Creativity and ego cannot go together.

If you free yourself from the comparing and jealous mind,

your creativity opens up endlessly.

Just as water springs from a fountain, creativity springs from every moment.

You must not be your own obstacle.

You must not be owned by the environment you are in.

You must own the environment, the phenomenal world around you.

You must be able to freely move in and out of your mind.

This is being free.

There is no way you can’t open up your creativity.

There is no ego to speak of.”

(From Netflix’s Chef’s Table, season 3, episode 1)

Curating The Week: The Neuroscience Of Rhythm, Rhythmical Line Drawings, Music & AI

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An article on the neuroscience of rhythm.

“A team of neuroscientists has found that people are biased toward hearing and producing rhythms composed of simple integer ratios — for example, a series of four beats separated by equal time intervals (forming a 1:1:1 ratio).

This holds true for musicians and nonmusicians living in the United States, as well as members of a Bolivian tribe who have little exposure to Western music. However, the researchers found that the Bolivians tended to prefer different ratios than Westerners, and that these ratios corresponded to simple integer ratios found in their music but not in Western music.”

An article on the continuous “Rhythmical Line” drawings of Wacław Szpakowski.

“The drawings, he explains, ‘were experiments with the straight line conducted not in research laboratories but produced spontaneously at various places and random moments since all that was needed to make them was a piece of paper and a pencil.’

“[Szpakowski] insists that ‘a single glance would not be enough,’ and that his were in fact ‘linear ideas,’ with ‘inner content’ accessible only to those who follow the line with their eyes on its journey from left to right: a process not unlike reading.”

An article on music and AI.

“Prompted to write a song in the style of the Beatles, an AI system based at Paris laboratory Flow Machines created the melody and harmony after analyzing a database of over 13,000 tracks in different musical styles, from jazz and pop to Brazilian samba and Broadway musicals. The music that comes from the ‘FlowComposer’ is defined by the limitations set for it – a certain note, chord structure or specific artist to analyze, for example. The result is impressive, though some might say it sounds more like the Super Furry Animals or a polished 13th Floor Elevators than the Fab Four.”

Here is the creepy song: